News Analysis

Morgan's IPL high-wire act leaves England hanging

Rather than getting first-class runs in England in April, Eoin Morgan will be enjoying the heat and glamour of the IPL - and putting his slim Ashes chances on the line

David Hopps
David Hopps
Eoin Morgan watches the ball after playing through the off side, Kolkata Knight Riders v Kings XI Punjab, IPL 2011, Kolkata, April 30, 2011

Will Eoin Morgan's IPL forays cost him a chance to play in an Ashes Test?  •  AFP

Because of a quirk of fate I'd rather not dwell upon, I found myself following the denouement of the Auckland Test from a cheap hotel in one of the less salubrious parts of Harrow. Don't be fooled by the public school on the hill, it can be a grim spot, especially when you are searching for a pint of decent real ale after a long drive.
It was a reminder of life without Sky TV and, dozing fitfully as England sought to bat out time, cursing that life had not entirely gone according to plan, I awoke occasionally to check the score in the closing session.
When not on ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball service, I kept abreast of things in Twitter. It can be rather disconcerting with nine wickets down to read 50 people screaming simultaneously 'Oh, Monty, what have you done!' without anybody thinking to attempt a spot of Neville Cardus in less than 140 characters and actually explaining what had happened, but I got the gist. I have such a wonderful mental image of that dive, I am reluctant to watch the real thing.
Anyway, England clung on and I fell asleep with the satisfying knowledge that after 15 days of Test cricket a 0-0 stalemate was a perfectly fitting conclusion. Not everybody gets it, but then not everybody needs to.
The first thing I wondered when I awoke the next morning was what did Eoin Morgan make of it all? Well, perhaps that was the second thing, after the usual issue of where the bathroom was. Was he entranced by England's heroic escape? Did he mutter that there was nothing to beat Test cricket? Was he consumed by dreams of making his own gloriously unexpected Ashes return this summer?
It would be a peculiar world if everybody was judged by their outpourings on Twitter, but that was where I had passed the early morning so I took a look. There were no tweets to be had on March 26 but on March 27, the day after the Test finished, he had his say. "IPL bound! No more training in the snow," he tweeted and, if you took one look at the accompanying picture - Middlesex's practice bubble at Radlett as temperatures collapsed towards freezing - you had to admit he had a point.
In this spring of all springs, a merciless assault on the build-up to the English season, for a talented and ambitious England cricketer to slip off to IPL excited about the clamour that was about to unfold was perfectly understandable.
Morgan has been full of excitement again today: "Opening ceremony tonight. Pitbull and SRK performing. Should be awesome." He has told a pre-IPL gathering in Kolkata that India is a beautiful country with beautiful people and beautiful food. He even expressed a hope that he could learn to cook it. It is to be hoped that Kolkata Knight Riders will give him a few matches this time. Outside England, nobody quite understands how good he is.
But forget for a moment an English landscape cursed by rain and cold, a landscape in which the trees remain bare and the birds are fighting for survival (you did ask someone to replenish the bird feeder, Eoin?) and substitute an image of the first Ashes Test against Australia at Trent Bridge on July 10. If Morgan's IPL jaunt puts him entirely out of contention, is his decision as wise as it first appears?
Morgan has a clinical mind to rival any England player in history. He can appear as calculating off the field as on, seemingly always in control, measuring his sentences as coolly as he appraises a limited-overs run chase. He is not the sort to find himself in a Harrow guest house when he does not want to be. If he is at the IPL then you can be assured he has examined his options to the nth degree.
On the subject of the Ashes, though, I'm tempted to think he has got it wrong. His analysis has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He repeatedly indicates that he would come back early to England if the selectors indicated that he was seriously in contention for the Test series against New Zealand and the Ashes to follow. But life is not like that if you are on the Test fringes. It is not England's job to give assurances, it is Morgan's job to make a case.
His positive comments in January caused a little media over-excitement. "I would like to be involved in the IPL again because I have learned a lot from it," he said. "But more so I want to be involved with England this summer. It is two Ashes series and it's what everyone dreams of. But if I am on the fringes things will have to be thought about quite deeply."
"Knowing Morgan, he will fancy he can find an unorthodox route into the Ashes. A successful IPL followed by a triumphant Champions Trophy would be a start"
Then he was not chosen for the New Zealand Test series, thought deeply and decided to throw in his lot with the IPL. Middlesex's managing director of cricket, Angus Fraser, would prefer him at Lord's - and so would England - but Morgan is centrally contracted and the ECB has issued no instructions for him to return early. And anyway, he only averaged 18 for Middlesex in the championship last season. He is a big-match player with a dubious Test technique. He needs to find another way.
Morgan has yet to play a Test against Australia and lost his No. 6 position after a series of failures against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates last year. Perhaps he regards his chances of an Ashes batting berth as slim. But he was selected for the Test tour of India before Christmas and those more highly favoured - the Yorkshire pair of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow - have not made their case.
Root is the batsman in possession, but he averages 30 in four Tests and has not made a fifty since his staunch debut against India in Nagpur. He is undoubtedly a player for the future, but as yet he is a batsman of limited range and, as he blocked like a good 'un in England's backs-to-the-wall draw in Auckland, his range was restricting by the minute.
Without Morgan, unless Ravi Bopara suddenly returns to prominence, England will attempt to retain the Ashes with four defensive batsmen in the top six - Alastair Cook, Nick Compton, Jonathan Trott and Joe Root. It is to be hoped that Ian Bell does not go into his shell or England's batting, although potentially remorseless, will find it hard to seize the initiative. The danger is that they could allow Australia to bowl to them.
Knowing Morgan, he will fancy he can find an unorthodox route into the Ashes. A successful IPL followed by a triumphant Champions Trophy would be a start - as would be a deepening of England's uncertainty about who should bat at No. 6 when they face New Zealand in the two May Tests. There would be a precedent for him guesting for Somerset against Australia in a pre-Trent Bridge warm-up and, assuming he misses out at Trent Bridge, he has time to face Warwickshire at Uxbridge before the second Ashes Test.
It sounds too much like the best of both worlds. It would be a high-wire act audacious enough to impress Philippe Petit. It might well come to naught. But do not assume that Eoin Morgan has not already considered the percentages.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo